- Chris Low, ESPN Senior Staff Writer
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Will Alabama find the players it needs on defense? Who will play running back for LSU in 2006? Does Chris Leak have to worry about playing time at Florida? Our SEC notebook addresses those questions and much more.
Mention to an Alabama defender that the Crimson Tide has lost its firepower on that side of the ball and watch him snarl. Linebacker Juwan Simpson, who had 64 tackles and two interceptions last season, is the only one of the Tide's top seven tacklers from a year ago returning. He will clearly be the leader of the 2006 defense, but there are others waiting in the wings to become that next DeMeco Ryans or Roman Harper. Up front, Jeremy Clark and Wallace Gilberry have played a lot of football. But other guys, such as tackle Dominic Lee and linebacker Terrence Jones, are poised to step into starting roles, and both are seniors. Senior cornerback Ramzee Robinson is the lone returning starter in the secondary, where Alabama won several games last season thanks to key plays at crucial times.
With former Springdale (Ark.) High School Coach Gus Malzahn stepping in as offensive coordinator, it remains to be seen what the Razorbacks will look like on offense next season. He ran a wide-open passing attack in high school, and his star pupil, heralded quarterback Mitch Mustain, will arrive on campus this summer. For the time being, Casey Dick exits the spring as the Hogs' starting quarterback, but Robert Johnson isn't far behind. The good news is that Arkansas has proved it can run the ball with Darren McFadden and Felix Jones and has 20 starters returning from last season. But the Hogs have to find a passing game and have to take a step forward on defense under second-year coordinator Reggie Herring. There won't be any time to waste. They open the season at home against USC on Sept. 2.
Kenny Irons admits he was feeling his way around the Auburn offense early last season. That partly explains why he was a bit of a late bloomer in 2005. Once he got going, though, no running back in the league was any better. And in the fall, Irons plans to pick up where he left off last season. "My production wasn't what it should have been to start last season," said Irons, who led the SEC in rushing with 1,293 yards and 13 touchdowns. "I even lost my starting job in the South Carolina game, and that was a reality check. It's probably the best thing that could have happened to me." Irons said he will be a more complete back next season, even though he knows opposing defenses will be gunning for him. More than anything, Irons says he has matured as a player and realizes that last season is ancient history. "I've already forgotten about last year. That's in the past. I'm trying to make something new happen."
Coach Urban Meyer has said since the start of spring practice last month that heralded true freshman quarterback Tim Tebow was going to play next season. If he picks up where he left off in last Saturday's spring game, he might play extensively. Tebow was the best quarterback on the field, outperforming senior Chris Leak and leading his team to a 24-6 victory in the spring game. Tebow obviously has good timing. It was probably his best outing of the spring; he finished 15-of-21 for 197 yards, including a 16-yard touchdown pass. He also looked comfortable running the option. In Leak's defense, he didn't have many playmakers around him. The Gators had as many as 14 projected starters for next season who sat out the game. Also, Meyer made it clear there isn't a quarterback controversy. He emphasized that Leak is the Gators' quarterback and that Tebow will be worked into the rotation as he continues to grow. Leak finished 17-of-33 for 145 yards and an interception. Overall, though, he had a productive spring and appeared much more comfortable in Meyer's offense than he did for much of last season.
Lost in the haze of all the interceptions of Georgia's quarterbacks during the spring game was the fact that the Bulldogs have some hungry players in the secondary eager to win a job. Senior rover Tra Battle is the only starter returning, meaning both cornerback spots and the free safety position are open. Junior cornerbacks Paul Oliver and Thomas Flowers have the most experience, but coach Mark Richt likes what he has seen from some of his younger players. Sophomore Ramarcus Brown and true freshman Asher Allen combined to return a pair of interceptions 184 yards for touchdowns in the spring game. Incoming freshmen Reshad Jones, Quintin Banks and Prince Miller also will push for playing time once they arrive on campus this summer.
The spring has come and gone for the Wildcats, and coach Rich Brooks still can't tell you who his quarterback will be next season. The race is that close between Curtis Pulley and Andre Woodson. Neither separated himself from the other this spring, which ended with this past Saturday's spring game. Brooks said he's not likely to make a decision until at least the second week of preseason practice in August. He said he might even go up until the week of the first game. If the Wildcats can stay healthy, whoever wins the job should have one of the best supporting casts in Lexington in some time. Rafael Little and Tony Dixon are versatile backs, and Alfonso Smith was the star of the spring game with 97 rushing yards and a touchdown. Pulley still has to prove he can throw the ball well enough to be an SEC quarterback, and Woodson has to demonstrate that he's going to play with confidence on a consistent basis. The reality is that both probably will play, although Brooks would prefer to pick one and stick with him.
The Tigers will be one of the most talented teams in the league next season as long as everyone returns healthy in the fall. The position where it will really be wait and see is at running back. Alley Broussard and Justin Vincent missed the spring while recovering from knee surgery. The Tigers hope to have both back in the fall, but there are no guarantees when they'll be ready. Broussard has had an especially difficult time coming back from his ACL tear. He missed all of last season after tearing up his knee during a preseason scrimmage. He's the kind of bruising, ball-control runner the Tigers could use this season with Joseph Addai departed. Also, tailback R.J. Jackson injured his knee during one of the final scrimmages of this spring, and fullback Steven Korte also sat out the spring game. Jacob Hester got most of the first-team tailback work in the absence of Broussard and Vincent, but he's normally a fullback. Coach Les Miles was impressed with Hester's versatility, but he's likely to move back to fullback if either Broussard or Vincent is ready for the Sept. 2 opener.
Starting quarterback Brent Schaeffer was finishing up junior college classes and wasn't around this spring. As for whom the former Tennessee quarterback will throw to next season, that's something that also will have to wait. The Rebels don't have a bevy of proven receivers, and coach Ed Orgeron is hoping several younger players can come through this fall. True freshman Marshay Green and sophomore Burnell Wallace made impressions this spring. The Rebels also hope redshirt freshman Michael Hicks can help. It will be critical this summer that all the receivers get in as much work with Schaeffer as possible. The incoming signees also will get long looks, and Orgeron has said that sophomore running back Mico McSwain might have to step in some at receiver. McSwain catches the ball well out of the backfield and was the Rebels' lone breakaway threat last season.
Mississippi State Bulldogs
On the surface, Mississippi State would seem to be hurting after losing two of its biggest stars from last season. Tailback Jerious Norwood, the school's all-time rushing leader, has departed, as has defensive end Willie Evans, who led the SEC in sacks last season. But the Bulldogs actually might be a more well-rounded team next season. Quarterback Michael Henig had a big spring and was named most improved offensive player. The offensive line should be more experienced around him, and junior college newcomer Tony Burks is a big target at receiver. Even without Evans, the defense should be the heart of the team. Coach Sylvester Croom might start six seniors on defense. Deljuan Robinson and Avery Hannibal head a deep defensive line, and middle linebacker Quinton Culberson is primed to have a breakout season.
South Carolina Gamecocks
Now that spring practice is over, coach Steve Spurrier is making sure his players and fans get a dose of reality. He's already starting to make the rounds at the Gamecock Club meetings around the state, and unlike in his days at Florida, isn't cracking any stinging jokes about his opponents. Instead, Spurrier remains miffed about the way South Carolina ended an otherwise successful season with a 38-31 loss to Missouri in the Independence Bowl. The Gamecocks blew a 28-7 lead and collapsed in the second half. Afterward, Spurrier said many of the players acted as if it were no big deal. He also wasn't impressed with the Gamecocks' performance in the spring game a few weeks ago and made it clear the program still has a ways to go before it starts winning championships. One of his recurring themes since the end of last season has been the need to upgrade facilities, and he's urging fans and donors to ante up. He said if the Gamecocks really want to be big-time, they need to act like it. Spurrier said next season is probably still too soon to expect an SEC championship but said South Carolina clearly is building in that direction.
The Vols lost all three starting linebackers from a year ago, but defensive coordinator John Chavis thinks they can be just as good at linebacker next season. Marvin Mitchell will move in at middle linebacker. Ryan Karl exited spring as the starter at strongside linebacker, and Ellix Wilson was the weakside linebacker. But one of the stars of the spring was redshirt freshman Rico McCoy, who was everywhere the ball was. He's a certainty to break into the starting lineup at some point, and Jerod Mayo is another one of those fleet-footed linebackers Tennessee has produced in droves under Chavis. Mayo was recovering from an injury and missed the spring. Chavis said that Mayo would have played extensively last season had he not suffered an injury. From a pure talent standpoint, Mayo has a chance to be Tennessee's next great linebacker.
The obvious holes are at quarterback and linebacker, where the Commodores lost their two best players from a year ago: quarterback Jay Cutler and linebacker Moses Osemwegie. But finding a replacement for tight end Dustin Dunning will be equally important in the fall. Dunning was a dependable receiver who was also a good blocker. The only tight end on the team with any SEC experience is sophomore Brad Allen. Redshirt freshmen Thomas Welch and Jake Bradford also will push for playing time. Welch and Bradford will be big targets. They're both in the 6-foot-6, 250-pound range. Coach Bobby Johnson said Allen also would be used some at H-back. There's also a chance the Commodores might use their tight ends at fullback in certain situations.
Chris Low covers the SEC for The (Nashville) Tennessean.
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3dAndrea Adelson and Matt Fortuna